The German TV show Parfum, made for Netflix, is very loosely based on Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Patrick Süskind’s definitive 1985 novel about perfumers and the sense of smell. The tagline is: “The perfume that makes everybody love you.” The show, with one series so far, has been on air since November 14, 2018, and can be seen on Netflix with English subtitles. It is indeed about smells and how humans react to them. Each episode in the series begins with a statement about perfume and how we perceive it, bearing in mind that, well, much of our experience of perfume occurs in our minds.
The statements made in the translated script, within the parameters of the plot about desire, murder, cannibalism and psychosis are generally in line with how perfume and the sense of smell actually work. The show is quite graphic and is meant for adults with tough stomachs, and deals with pretty physical and intimate subjects, so be warned. However, it is quite good and, for commercial TV, rather unusual and daring in its subject matter. The first two parts under discussion are Ambra and Skatole.
“Ambergris is lust.
Sweet, painful, murderous lust.
For centuries, people have tried to find out where ambergris came from, which washed ashore on lucky days.
The Chinese thought ambergris was the saliva of dragons.
The Arabs said ambergris stemmed from springs at the end of the world.
Ambergris stems from the digestive tract of sick sperm whales.
Cost: 50,000 Euro per kilo.
The most expensive shit [sic] in the world.” (Extract from the translated script of Parfum)
Am·ber·gris /ˈambərˌɡris,ˈambərˌɡrē(s) is a waxy substance that originates as a secretion in the intestines of the sperm whale, found floating in tropical seas and used in perfume manufacture. Freshly produced ambergris has a marine, fecal odor. Hence the reference in the script that it is “sh*t”.
Strictly speaking though, it is neither fecal matter, though it is passed in the whale’s fecal matter, nor does it comes from sick whales. Ambergris is formed from a secretion of the bile duct in the intestines of the sperm whale, which takes years to form and is eventually expelled by the whale. Ambergris is usually passed in the fecal matter. The belief about the ambergris coming from sick whales, came from the speculation that an ambergris mass too large to be passed through the intestines is expelled via the mouth, leading to the reputation of ambergris as primarily coming from whale vomit.
Ambergis (also called “grey amber” because it looks like a grey lump) acquires a sweet, earthy scent as it ages, commonly likened to the fragrance of rubbing alcohol without the vaporous chemical astringency. Ambergris has been very highly valued by perfumers as a fixative that allows the scent to last much longer, although, because of protection of the species and its rarity, it has been mostly replaced by synthetic ambroxan.
Perfumes that have ambroxan as an ingredient or as a fixative, are Sauvage by Christian Dior, Not a Perfume by Juliette Has a Gun, Molecule 02 and Escentric 02 by Geza Schien’s Escentric Molecules, Le Temps Perdu by Salle Privée and Eros by Versace, to name a few. The new non-perfume from Juliette Has a Gun is called Not a Perfume because it is not a perfume, but Ambrox in a bottle. C16H28O, ambroxan, is one of the main ingredients, used as a base note.
“Without the scent of your skin, this perfume is nothing.
Just like you without the suitable perfume.
It’s not the foreign that draws us in, it’s the familiar that mesmerizes us.
Added to perfume in small quantities, skatole seems like a familiar person waving at us, like a hint of coming home.
Only the scent of a higher concentration reveals that, in fact, we smell our closet confidante from birth.
Skatole is the fragrance substrate of human feces.
We love the familiar, good or bad, at least until the moment of true understanding.” (Extract from the translated script of Parfum)
Skatole or 3-methylindole ( C9H9N) is a mildly toxic white crystalline organic compound belonging to the indole family. It occurs naturally in feces (it is produced from tryptophan in the mammalian digestive tract) and coal tar and has a strong fecal odor. In low concentrations, it has a flowery smell and is found in several flowers and essential oils, including those of orange blossoms, jasmine, and Ziziphus mauritiana. In higher concentrations it has an animalic, warm, sweet smell like over-ripe fruit. It is used as a fragrance and fixative in many perfumes and as an aroma compound.
Why use skatole? Because our intimate, familiar body odours are attractive to ourselves on a primal level, but also because every composition needs balance. It cannot be all sweet or all flowery, it needs contrast, something “dark” to offset the “light”. As perfumer Max Millies explains:
“…Natural ingredients are beautiful and rich but in the modern world we need the synthetics which bring about a sharpness, a defined character, and creates notes which are unquestionably modern such as marine notes. These types of notes are indispensable and modern perfumery would not be possible without it.”
What the script writers are saying is that like many stinky, natural things, a little of it can be alluring, a lot can be plain disgusting. “Perhaps the most famous perfume to feature skatole in doses that should perhaps be illegal was Nuit de Chine (Chinese Nights) by Maurice Schaller in 1913 for Les Parfums de Rosine. Nuit de Chine was a fougere (fern) type perfume built around a core of sandalwood, skatole, peach, and rose. When you smell this fragrance, the skatole makes its presence known from the get-go, but it is so perfectly balanced with the other ingredients that you can’t stop sniffing it.” (Jamie Frater, Top 10 Bizarre Ingredients In Perfume, April 18, 2019) Many other perfumes are said to contain skatole, but in actual fact only contain ingredients that mimic the overall rotten-fruit effect.
Here, for those of you who understand German, is the German trailer. However, if you don’t, I think the images are pretty self-explanatory.